Taste the Rainbow

Challenging Interpretations? Think the Rainbow!

In a previous blog post, Through a Glass Darkly (2013), I proposed that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses with lenses comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. I suggested that some of these thoughts and beliefs make for “dirtier” lenses than others — they restrict, rather than expand, our sense of what is possible for us, and in our lives. We can talk about these particular thoughts and beliefs as contributing to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic/negative energy, which breaks us down, rather than anabolic/positive energy, which builds us up. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider writes about catabolic thoughts and beliefs as “energy blocks” that get in our way of making conscious choices, and prevent us reaching our potential (129); he identifies four of these obstacles, and calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic). In past blog posts, we have looked at limiting beliefs and assumptions; today, we explore interpretations.

If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.Diana Wynne Jones

Schneider defines an interpretation as an opinion that we create to explain an experience that we have had (137). For an example, he refers back to the scenario that he used to illustrate assumptions, in which he has asked a woman on a date, and she has declined: he interprets her “no” as meaning that he does not dress well enough (138). Cue Sharp Dressed Man from ZZ Top’s 1983 album, Eliminator! If he decides to act on his interpretation, Schneider may spend money on a new wardrobe, which — if his own idea about why the woman has declined a date with him does not reflect the reasons that she herself might cite — could constitute “‘marching off in the wrong direction’” (138), and even set himself up for frustration when she still says “no” as he stands before her in a new (and expensive!) Armani suit. When we allow ourselves to believe that our interpretation is the only possible explanation for what we have experienced, we close ourselves off from other options that may be very helpful for us to consider. Personally, I think of every experience in our lives as generating the “enormous rainbow” of possible interpretations that the late British children’s fantasy writer, Diana Wynne Jones, associated with myth and folklore. I view interpretations as stories that we tell ourselves to help us make sense out of our experiences and the world around us; others may sometimes agree that these stories are “true,” but even this social construction of a certain “validity” does not make interpretations facts.

There are no facts, only interpretations.Friedrich Nietzsche

There are ways for us to challenge interpretive “energy blocks,” of course, and the approaches will likely sound familiar to anyone who is already familiar with cognitive-behavioral responses to anxious thinking, especially to those patterns that are often referred to as mind reading and personalization. The first step, I contend, is to recognize that we do not have to accept everything that we think as “true,” that our ideas about what we experience are not facts (whatever those are), but beliefs based on what we see through the lenses in the invisible eyeglasses that we wear. When we catch ourselves making an interpretation, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, as Schneider suggests, “‘What’s another way to look at that?’” (140). Just posing this question to ourselves can defuse the power of our own particular perspective, and diminish what — borrowing from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie — we can call “the danger of a single story”; we acknowledge that other (and potentially more helpful!) meanings are possible. We may even decide to go a step further, and ask another person, whether or not that person is involved, about his or her interpretation of an experience. Or, we can play around with challenging ourselves to argue what we would identify as the exact opposite of our first interpretation. There is a rainbow of possibilities!

I have proposed in previous posts, and will do so again in this one, that we actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, with greater balance (which helps foster calm and confidence!), when we challenge our often all-too-automatic anxious thinking. If, after exploring other possible meanings of an experience, we decide that we want to stick with our original interpretation, we can do so, and then shift into conscious consideration of how we want to respond. In the process of responding consciously to any interpretation we have, I suggest that we remember how long we have been looking through the particular set of lenses that supports this interpretation; initially, we may find ourselves still tending to perceive (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. In my own experience, interpretations can be at least as emotionally charged as the assumptions that we explored in the last post, and so also difficult for us to let go. Just imagine a history for Schneider, in his dating scenario, in which he grew up poor and was teased as a child for not having the popular clothes that so many of his peers were wearing! To help us loosen our grip on a “stubborn” interpretation, I suggest echoing the approach that Schneider recommends for responding to assumptions — validating our perspective as absolutely “normal” given what we have experienced previously, and how we have learned to think about those experiences (136). How else could we think — until we challenge ourselves to think differently?

“Experience the Rainbow!” — Skittles

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to notice when you are making interpretations, creating opinions to explain your experiences (I think of human beings as meaning-making creatures — we engage in this activity all the time!). Your boss may come into work and head straight to her office without saying “Good morning!” to you, shutting the door hard behind her. You think that she must be angry with you, though you don’t know why she would be; you steer clear of her for the rest of the morning, trying to figure out what you did to upset her, instead of talking to her about the assignment she gave you, and which you have finished — early! You may be feeling nervous about how a classmate is looking at you as you give a presentation, wondering what he is criticizing about you, or about what you’re doing, as he watches. Consider whether or not such interpretations of your experiences are helpful to you, whether they resonate with catabolic energy, that distracts and drains you, or anabolic energy, that supports you in moving in the direction that you want to go. What are other ways of looking at these experiences? Perhaps your boss has had a tough morning with a sick child, or is grouchy about spilling coffee on herself in the Starbucks drive-through (her mood may have nothing to do with you!). Maybe that classmate is thinking how nervous he is, imagining that you might be feeling similarly, and admiring how you are forging right along in your presentation. The key, I think, to challenging interpretations, is in a variation on the Skittles candy ad campaign — “Experience the Rainbow! Taste the Rainbow!” Your interpretation is only one possible color of meaning for the experience that you have had. Think the Rainbow!

Featured image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skittles-Candies-Pile.jpg

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. Thank you for reading!

Challenge Assumptions

Assumptions: A Phantom Menace

“You assume too much.” – Nute to Amidala, and Padme to Qui-Gon, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In a previous blog post, Through a Glass Darkly (2013), I proposed the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are made up of the thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of the thoughts and beliefs, I submitted, are helpful to us — they have an anabolic or positive influence on our mood, energy, and actions, and so expand what is possible for us. Others can limit our view, and so our experiences of life — these thoughts and beliefs resonate with catabolic or negative energy that can have distracting, draining, and even destructive effects on our sense of ourselves; our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; our work lives; and our relationships. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” that prevent us from making conscious choices in our lives and reaching our potential; he calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic) (129). In my last blog post, I explored limiting beliefs; today, I’m turning our attention to the next menace in the list — assumptions.

Schneider defines an assumption very specifically as “a belief that, because something [has] happened in the past, it’s going to happen again” (134). To provide an example, Schneider references a scenario in which he has asked someone on a date, and that person has declined; he believes (assumes) that because this one person has said “no” that anyone else he may ask will also turn down his invitation. As a result, he may either decide not to try again (since he already “knows” what will happen), or to allow his expectations of “rejection” to affect the energy with which he asks the next person, potentially setting himself up, then, for the very experience that he fears — a kind of self-sabotage. When we permit our assumptions to determine what we decide to do in our lives, we let a past experience control what is possible for us in our present and future. With this idea in mind, I have come to think of an assumption as a ghost or phantom of a past “negative” experience that we allow to haunt us, to intimidate us out of taking positive action in our lives.

There are several ways for us to challenge any assumption that we make. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation. The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do not have to believe everything that we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how it is!”). When catching ourselves in the midst of making an assumption, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, “‘Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?’” (136). In posing this question, we open space for ourselves to examine the evidence for the assumption that we have made, and to find evidence that contradicts it, that reminds us that other outcomes are possible. We actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, I contend, in being less unconsciously dominated by our anxious thinking (see also Thanks, Not Angst, 2012). If, after we have examined the evidence, we decide that our assumption still has merit, we can then shift into strategies of response that echo those that are useful for countering catastrophic thinking. We can ask ourselves, “So what if that happens?” and “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?” In the process of responding consciously to an assumption, whatever tactic we take, we may want to keep in mind that we have been seeing through the particular set of lenses that supports this assumption for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Schneider notes that because assumptions are based primarily on personal experiences, they are “internalized” and more “emotional” than limiting beliefs; as a result, they can be difficult for us to release (136). He suggests that validating our own perspective as absolutely “normal,” given what we have experienced and how we have learned to think about what we have experienced so far in our lives, can help us loosen our grip on the belief that is holding us back (136).

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for the “phantom menace” of assumptions. Look for thoughts and beliefs related to what has happened in the past that you expect to happen again, that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible for you and in your life as a result. These thoughts and beliefs will be ones that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic or negative energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic or positive energy, which builds you up. Once you notice an assumption, question it, ask yourself what thoughts and beliefs would be more helpful to you, and decide how you want to “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather than against you. These glasses can support you in taking positive action with a sense of calm and confidence — in whatever direction you want to go.

Bon Voyage!

“The Force will be with you, always.” — Obi-Wan to Luke, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Featured image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. So many possibilities! Thank you for reading.

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